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Stories of Web Users
[Draft] How People with Disabilities Use the Web


The following stories are selected scenarios of people with disabilities using the Web, to highlight the effect of web accessibility barriers and the broader benefits of accessible websites and web tools.

Note: The following scenarios do not represent actual individuals and do not include every kind of disability.

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Mr. Lee, Online shopper with color blindness

Mr. Lee wants to buy some new clothes, appliances, and music. As he frequently does, he is spending an evening shopping online. He has one of the most common visual disabilities for men: color blindness, which in his case means an inability to distinguish between green and red.

More about Mr. Lee

He has difficulty reading the text on many websites. When he first started using the Web, it seemed to him the text and images on a lot of websites used poor color contrast, since they appeared to use similar shades of brown. He realized that many websites were using colors that were indistinguishable to him because of his red/green color blindness. In some cases, the site instructions explained that discounted prices were indicated by red text, but all of the text looked brown to him. In other cases, the required fields on forms were indicated by red text, but again he could not tell which fields had red text.

Mr. Lee has found that he prefers websites that use sufficient color contrast, and redundant information for color. The websites accomplish this by including names of the colors of clothing as well as showing a sample of the color; by adding text cues such as an asterisk to discounted prices in addition to showing them in a different color; and by clearly indicating the required fields on the order form in addition to indicating them by color.

After additional experimentation, Mr. Lee discovered settings in his web browser that allowed him to define customized color combinations for text, links, and the background. He also discovered settings for high color contrast combinations in his web browser that he can switch on when he encounters a website that is difficult to read. However, this approach does not work for all websites, such as those that are not coded to allow readers to override the default presentation of the website.

Eventually, Mr. Lee bookmarked a series of online shopping sites where he could get reliable information on product colors or where he could override the colors, and not have to guess at which items were discounted.

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Mr. Jones, Reporter with repetitive stress injury

Mr. Jones is a reporter for an on-line journal who must submit his articles using a web-based tool (called content management system — CMS) provided by the publisher. Over his twenty-year career, Mr. Jones developed repetitive stress injury (RSI) in his hands and arms, and it has become painful for him to type.

More about Mr. Jones

He does not use a mouse because it strains his wrists. He also cannot type for long periods of time without serious pain. After dedicated research and consultation, Mr. Jones developed an approach that allows him to continue working as a reporter. He uses:

  • Keyboard with ergonomical layout to relieve strain on his hands and arms
  • Web browser with keyboard support to use websites without a mouse
  • Voice recognition software to dictate passages of text rather than to type

It took him several months to become sufficiently accustomed to using voice recognition software and to be comfortable working with it for many hours at a time. It also took him a while to learn the keyboard commands built into his web browser and to use them effectively on different types of web pages.

Still, Mr. Jones cannot use websites that do not provide keyboard support. For instance, some websites have forms and controls that do not have keyboard equivalents. To activate these, he would have to use a mouse instead of voice recognition or typing, and this would worsen his RSI. Many websites also do not provide mechanisms to skip over forms, menus, and other parts of a web page using the keyboard alone. To navigate through such websites, he would have to use the keyboard extensively, and this would again strain his hands.

In order for Mr. Jones to continue working with the publisher, web developers built customized work-arounds into the CMS to add some of the keyboard support that was initially missing. It is not an optimal solution and only works for some of the functions, but the publisher intends to upgrade the CMS to one with full keyboard support, especially since other employees found that keyboard support was easier on their hands.

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Ms. Martinez, Online student who is hard of hearing

Ms. Martinez is taking several distance learning courses in physics. She is 62 years old, and has been hard of hearing since birth. She can hear some sounds but not enough to understand all speech, so she learned sign language in addition to written language.

More about Ms. Martinez

She had little trouble with the curriculum until the university upgraded their online material to a multimedia approach, using an extensive collection of audio lectures. For classroom-based lectures the university provided sign language interpreters and CART writers (professionals typing what is being said verbatim). However, for web-based instruction, they initially did not realize that accessibility was an issue, then said they had no idea how to provide the material in accessible format.

With the help of a local disability organization, Ms. Martinez was able to point out that the university was clearly covered by a policy requiring accessibility of online educational material. She was also able to point to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as a resource providing guidance on how to make websites accessible, including those with multimedia content.

The university had the audio-only lectures (no video) transcribed and made these transcripts available through their website along with audio files. For multimedia presentations that include video and audio, the university provides captioning of the audio. Ms. Martinez uses a media player that displays these captions directly below the video so that she can better understand the context of what is being said.

Through this process the university discovered many more benefits of transcripts and captions. For instance, it was much easier to comprehensively index the accessible multimedia resources and provide them in the search engine of the website. They also found they can provide captions in other languages to support international students, students who could not download or play the audio, and many more.

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Ms. Laitinen, Accountant with blindness

Ms. Laitinen is the chief accountant at an insurance company that uses web-based documents and forms over a corporate intranet. She is blind and, like many other blind computer users, does not read braille.

More about Ms. Laitinen

To use her computer and the Web, Ms. Laitinen uses:

  • Screen reader software that interprets what is displayed on the screen and generates speech output
  • Web browser with keyboard support to help use websites without a mouse

She uses the keyboard to navigate websites, often by jumping from heading to heading to get an overview of what is on a web page. Her screen reader indicates the structural information on a web page such as headings, column and row headings in tables, list items, links, form controls, and more. She has become accustomed to listening to speech output at a speed that her co-workers cannot understand at all. However, when websites are not coded properly and do not include structural information, Ms. Laitinen would have to read every web page from top to bottom to find the information that she needs. This is unmanageable and she avoids such websites where she can, both for leisure and for business.

Much of the information on the intranet documents used at her company is organized in tables, which can sometimes be difficult to read by people using screen readers. However, since the tables in these documents are marked up properly, she easily orients herself to the information in the tables. The documents also include alternative text for images, labels for form elements, and other navigational cues that are interpreted by the screen reader.

As one of the more senior members of the accounting staff, Ms. Laitenen must frequently train employees who are based at different locations using a virtual learning environment. This includes video conferencing, document and slide sharing, as well as a live chatroom. It was a challenge to find a solution that was accessible to her and to other employees with disabilities, but it proved to be beneficial for many of the staff.

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Ms. Olsen, Classroom student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia

Ms. Olsen attends middle school, and particularly likes her literature class. She has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with dyslexia, and the combination leads to substantial difficulty reading. However, with recent accommodations to the curriculum she has become enthusiastic about this class.

More about Ms. Olsen

Her school recently started to use more online curricula to supplement class textbooks. She was initially worried about the reading load, since she reads slowly. She experimented with text-to-speech software that highlighted the text on the screen and read it aloud at the same time, and found that she was able to read much more easily when she could hear certain sections of it read to her, instead of struggling over every word.

When she goes onto the Web, she finds that some websites are much easier for her to use than others. Some of the web pages have a lot of graphics and illustrations that help her focus in quickly on sections she wants to read. In some cases, though, where the graphics are animated, it is very hard for her to focus and she is constantly distracted by the movement. She set her web browser to freeze or hide animated graphics so that she can focus on the relevant information but that does not always work on every website.

One of the most important things for her has been the level of accessibility of the web-based online library catalogues and the general search functions on the Web. Until recently, Ms. Olsen often needed to visit the library and to seek assistance to find the information that she needs. Today, the accessible online library catalogue of the school enables her to find the right information without any assistance.

Her teacher taught a number of different search strategies but sometimes the search options are still quite confusing for her. She finds that websites that provide error corrections and suggest alternative spellings assist her significantly. Also websites that provide multiple navigation mechanisms such as a navigation bar, a search box, a sitemap, or bread-crumb trails, are easier for her to use.

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Mr. Yunus, Retiree with low vision, hand tremor, and mild short-term memory loss

Mr. Yunus is 85 years old and started to use the Web several years ago to stay in touch with family and friends, and to read about art history. He has reduced vision, hand tremor, and mild short-term memory loss.

More about Mr. Yunus

He regularly reads selected news websites and tracks several blogs that interest him. He also uses several social networking websites with which he can communicate with his children, grandchildren, other relatives, and friends. He maintains a blog in which he writes about art history and other topics that he enjoys. His grandchildren set up a photo-sharing website that his family uses to post pictures and videos, and he enjoys seeing family members who are far away and that he otherwise can not see as frequently.

Mr. Yunus has difficulty reading small text and clicking on small links or form elements. His daughter gave him a specialized mouse that compensates hand trembling and showed him how to enlarge the text on websites using the web browser settings, since enlarging makes reading text and clicking links easier. His web browser has a zoom function that enlarges the entire page and a text enlarging setting that only increases the text size. He prefers to enlarge the text only rather than the entire web page, since enlarging the entire web page on his browser distorts the images and forces him to scroll horizontally to read some of the text. Besides the difficulty in using a mouse, it is also difficult for him to concentrate on scrolling and reading a sentence.

Unfortunately, Mr. Yunus discovered that many websites are not designed to support text enlarging. For instance, sometimes the text can not be resized or the text on the web pages starts to overlap each other as he increases the text size. Another barrier that he encounters is CAPTCHA images that he finds on several social networking websites. These distorted images of text are intended to tell computers and humans apart, but Mr. Yunus cannot read the small and distorted text, even if he enlarges the image. Only a few websites provide alternatives to CAPTCHA images that are more accessible to him.

Mr. Yunus has gradually found and bookmarked websites that work well for him. He also found a web browser that helps him organize these bookmarks and that shows him pictures of his favorite websites so that he does not need to remember their web address or name.

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Mr. Sands, Supermarket assistant with Down syndrome

Mr. Sands has put groceries in bags for customers for the past year at a supermarket. He has Down syndrome, and has difficulty with abstract concepts, reading, and doing mathematical calculations.

More about Mr. Sands

He usually buys his own groceries at this supermarket because he is familiar with it, but sometimes finds that there are so many product choices that he becomes confused, and he finds it difficult to keep track of how much he is spending. He has difficulty re-learning where his favorite products are each time the supermarket changes the layout of its products.

Recently, he visited an online grocery service from his computer at home. He explored the website the first few times with a friend. He found that he could use the website without much difficulty because the items were clearly indicated, the information and instructions were formulated in simple language that is easy to understand, and the navigation was consistent and easy to use.

His friend also showed him some software that highlights links and form options on the web page, and helps him select such links and options using a single key. This software also has word prediction functionality which highlights a selection of likely words based on the first few characters that he can easily select. Ms. Sands uses this function frequently when he is entering text, such as comments and product reviews. He is happy that the website provides a similar feature for its product search function because it highlights the product names which his software does not know.

The website also provides an option that lets him select from a list of products that he has ordered in the past or that he selected as his favorites. Once he decides what he wants to buy, he selects the item and puts it into his virtual shopping basket. The website gives him an updated total each time he adds an item, helping him make sure that he does not over spend his budget.

Mr. Sands now shops on the online grocery site a few times a month, and just buys a few fresh items each day at the supermarket where he works. He is one of the many happy customers of this usable website.

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Ms. Kaseem, Teenager with deaf-blindness

Ms. Kaseem uses the Web to find new restaurants to go to with friends and classmates. She is deaf and recently became legally blind too, but she can see small portions of a screen.

More about Ms. Kaseem

At home, she uses the following combination of hardware and software to use the Web:

  • Screen magnification software to enlarge the text on websites to a suitable font size
  • Screen reader software that displays text on the screen on a refreshable braille device
  • Large computer screen with high resolution and high luminosity (brightness)
  • Portable refreshable braille device that displays characters in tactile form

She uses screen magnification software to enlarge small portions of a web page on the entire screen. The magnifier also enlarges the mouse pointer on the screen so that she can see it. When screen magnification is not sufficient, she uses a screen reader to drive the refreshable braille display, which she reads slowly.

Ms. Kaseem also uses a mobile phone to access the Web when she is not at home. The phone displays buttons or braille characters on the screen, and uses the vibration function to signal them when she scans over the touch-screen with her fingertips. She uses the GPS on her phone to better orient herself, to find out about what is nearby, or for recording reviews about restaurants in her favorite city guide.

She often uses the public transportation websites to plan her trips. However, the bus schedules get distorted when they are enlarged because the text inside them does not wrap or re-flow properly. The schedules for the local train are in a different format that allows better enlarging. The local trains website also uses proper markup to indicate the page headings, column and row headings in tables, list items, links, form controls, and more. Her friend told her that this website was easier to use by others using a mobile phone too.

Ms. Kaseem found advice on Contacting Organizations about Inaccessible Websites and notified the webmaster of the public buses website about the accessibility barriers she encounters on the site. She also explained how the public trains website works better for her and for other mobile phone users, and hopes she will soon get a response.

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